For Republicans, the recent U.S. presidential election was supposed to be 1980. They would paint President Barack Obama as Jimmy Carter -- weak on the economy and weak on national security. High unemployment and low growth? Check. National security? Democratic presidential candidates -- from Carter to John Kerry -- were often hobbled by public doubts about their fitness to protect the United States from foreign threats (see: "Dukakis, tank").
But not this year. For the first time in decades, Democrats had a presidential candidate with an advantage on these issues. Obama entered the 2012 election with a successful foreign-policy record: The U.S. war in Iraq was over, the war in Afghanistan was winding down, Osama bin Laden was dead, al Qaeda's top ranks were decimated, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was toppled, and an international coalition had been assembled to impose the toughest-ever sanctions on Iran.
Americans have taken notice. As recently as 2003, Democrats trailed Republicans by 29 percentage points on which party voters trusted more on national security. But on Election Day this year, voters trusted Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, equally on national security -- and they trusted the president 11 points more on the broader category of international affairs. This represents a historic turnaround.
This reversal reflects not only the president's strong record, but also the incoherent positions of Romney and his Republican allies. Sometimes, they returned to the neoconservative recklessness of the George W. Bush era -- banging the war drums on Iran and calling for the indiscriminate arming of Syrian rebels. At other times, Romney and his surrogates sounded frozen in the Cold War, calling Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical foe and referring to the Czech Republic as Czechoslovakia. Romney and the Republicans also argued that debt was America's biggest challenge, even as they proposed spending trillions more on defense than even the Pentagon has requested.
Now the question is: Can Obama and his party retain that national security edge in the face of old doubts about the party and new global challenges?
The Democratic Party shouldn't rest easy on its national security laurels. Focus groups conducted by the polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner during this year's election show the public's trust in Obama on national security has not yet erased their doubts about his party. Swing voters, while saying they were "pleasantly surprised" by Obama's strength on handling global challenges, said they still saw the Democratic Party as a party that lacks skill in commanding the military, is too slow in recognizing foreign threats, and bends too much to public opinion rather than having a clear strategic vision.